The Merchant's Tale

Some notes for beginners

Three different languages existed side by side in England in medieval times. French had been spoken by the King and his Court ever since William of Normandy invaded England in 1066 and, as a consequence, the few aristocratic families who could read preferred French stories of chivalry and romance describing deeds of selfless heroism, far removed from everyday peasant life. Chaucer's Knight's and Franklin's Tales are English examples of the type.

The medieval King was also the originator of the law of the land and contemporary lawyers today still earn their large fees explaining medieval French words like conveyance and mortgage to a twentieth century Anglo-Saxon speaking peasantry made up of the rest of us.

On the other hand, anyone with a desire for education had to learn Latin; the universal language of the medieval church. It had the advantage that any student could understand any lecture given in almost any university throughout Europe, and allowed scholars to correspond with each other across constantly shifting feudal boundaries. Medieval grammar schools in England were founded for the teaching of Latin and Greek grammar, not the study of English.

Students were, as ever, very poor, and boys with any intellectual aspirations had to find a sponsor, either amongst the bishops and abbots of the church, or their local lord of the manor. Girls were discouraged from learning Latin, as scholarship was a male preserve. On completion of their studies most young men took 'orders' and entered the ranks of the clergy, who were also used as government bureaucrats at that time.

The rest of medieval English society spoke a form of Anglo-Saxon called Middle English, which had a strong oral literature handed down by successive generations, but a poor written one, as few people could read or write. One of the best known pre-Chaucerian works is 'Piers Plowman' set by its author, William Langland, on the Malvern Hills. Needless to say, between the battle of Hastings in 1066 and the Black Death plague of 1364, when Chaucer was writing, lay two hundred years of cross-fertilisation between Norman-French, Church-Latin, and Anglo-Saxon tongues.

It was this triple mixture that produced Chaucer, Shakespeare, and the third most widely spoken language in the world. It is for this reason that the study of Chaucer gives a glimpse of the origins of the English Language and in doing so, entertains those who come after him, with the fact that human nature never changes, even if the words do.

You might wonder why the English language became more important in Chaucer's time and not before or later. The answer lies in the gradual loss during the Hundred Year's War of all the French lands that had been held simultaneously in both countries by the English aristocracy. This meant that the landowners became more anglicised and had to speak English to communicate with their native estate mamagers, like Chaucer's Reeve.

Furthermore, the Black Death of 1364 gave an opportunity for ordinary people to seek their fortunes in different parts of the country where labour was short, despite laws to the contrary, and few questions of social origin were asked. This, in its turn, produced an entrepreneurial English-speaking semi-literate middle class, like the Merchant, who would prefer to read tabloid newpapers like the 'Mirror' or the 'Sun' in English, rather than 'The Times' in French or the 'Guardian' in Latin, assuming they had existed at the time.

So, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales are divided into stories of courtly romance in the aristocratic tradition; sermons on morality and good behaviour by some of the religious pilgrims; and 'stories of everyday folk' by the more down to earth members of the travelling party. Three of these, the Miller, Merchant, and Reeve, told stories known as 'fabliaux', that are very direct in their references to sexual behaviour. Chaucer often apologises for his direct use of language and Victorians thought he was apologising for bawdiness. However, he was actually apologising to any aristocratic readers for writing in English, the language of the peasantry. He keeps saying that he has to put down the words they spoke or 'else be false'.

One favourite topic for medieval discussion is known to scholars as 'The Marriage Debate'. This includes stories about the conflict between men and women in marriage; the propriety or otherwise of marrying more than once; whether the old ought to marry the young; and the sin or otherwise of adultery. A medieval marriage was often illustrated by a man and woman each pulling at a pair of trousers.

As nearly all marriages were arranged for economic reasons; very few married for love. Furthermore, the absence of husbands on crusade (a kind of on-going Gulf War), or in the Hundred Years' war with France, led to an eager rivalry between landless young aristocrats (squires) for the 'favour' of attractive young wives, wealthy widows, or spinster heiresses, left in command of castles and manors. In order to bring order to the stampede, a complex system of codes of behaviour came into existence by which the aspring young man had to prove his ardour by undertaking some 'labour of love' or quest. This had the advantage of getting rid of an over-eager pest for a space of time in which he might prove his bravery and grow up. It was a very elaborate survival of the fittest.

Lower down the social scale such devious niceties were dispensed with, and both the Miller and the Merchant's stories are about sexual opportunists. The Merchant's Tale is one of a group of four in the Canterbury Tales that concern marriage, which includes the Tales of the Wife of Bath, the Clerk, the Merchant, and the Franklin. The Wife of Bath's Prologue gives an account of her marrying four elderly men for their money and then, when she is forty, her teenage apprentice for love. Her Tale suggests that only when the wife has the 'maistry', can a marriage be happy. The Clerk's Tale on the other hand is an account of an overbearing husband, who subjects his young wife to indignities in order to prove her love for him, and magnanimously and patronisingly takes her back, when he finds she is truly obedient. The Merchant's Tale is about a young wife who deceives her elderly husband, and the Franklin's Tale concludes that both husband and wife must be equal partners for true happiness in marriage to exist.


In the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, we see the Merchant as an aloof anonymous figure, who sits upright on his horse, talking of nothing but his profits, and re-investing to such an extent that he has cash-flow problems. It therefore seems surprising when he tells us in his Prologue that, after only being married for two months, he is fed up with his wife, who has turned out to have `hye malice and to be a shrewe'. He therefore feels it necessary to warn all the pilgrims of the `weeping and wailing, care and sorrow' that marriage brings. Although he says he cannot tell us of his own misery, we can read between the lines and assume that, like January, he has married a young wife and been similarly betrayed.

His story is set in Pavia, in Lombardy, a region of northern Italy renowned for its banking expertise; so much so, that it gave its name to Lombard Street in the City of London. Sixty year old January decides to marry and settle down after a life of promiscuity following `ay his bodily delyt'. His name is taken from Janus, the Roman god of doorways, who had two faces, one looking before and the other after. This suggests that January is taking stock of his life hitherto and believes that he is in danger of hell-fire unless he mends his ways. At that time marriage was considered to be a holy sacrament which, like baptism or confirmation, allowed a fresh start in life. He has another more practical reason, too. He wishes to `engendren him an heir' to inherit his fortune and has no desire that his `heritage sholde falle in straunge hand'.

Accordingly, he indulges in some wishful-thinking about a wife who is `so trewe, and eek so ententyf to keep him, syk and hool, as is his make' and has a desire to love and serve. At this point the Merchant himself intervenes to say that scholars, including the well-known classical misogynist Theofrastus, recommend a reliable servant as being more use than a wife, who is `only after thy good'. However, January thinks about a wife being `Goddes yifte...a paradys terrestre...whoo seith not ones `nay' when he seith `ye'. To reinforce his belief, he recalls the names of some virtuous wives from the Bible.

The story resumes at line 149 with January sending for his friends to tell them of his decision, and, after some hypocritical cant about `upon my soule somewhat moste I think', announces that she must be under twenty, because `a yonge thing may men gye...like warm wex', whereas anyone over thirty was but `bene-straw and greet forage', and only good enough for feeding to cattle. He also boasts that his prowess is undiminished with his `limes stark and suffisaunt'. His friends held conflicting opinions about marriage, as did his two brothers.

One, Placebo, living up to his name, says that he has `never hem contraried' and the other, Justinius, tells January to find out beforehand `wher she be wys, or sobre or drokelewe or a wastour of thy good'. He gives him three years' happiness at most. January decides to follow his own choice and `chees hir of his owene auctoritee', especially as he already seems to have discovered `a mayden in the toun of beautee', who, despite her `smal degree' socially, would appear to have the desired attributes of `a myddel smal, and armes longe and sclendre'. Justinius again urges caution, remarking that `she may be your purgatorie', and God's method for punishing January for his past misdemeanours whilst he is still alive. Justinius concludes gloomily that their `nis no so greet felicitee in mariage'.

January decided to go ahead and, with the help of his brothers, the girl, May, agrees to marry him after she has been given sufficient inducements in the form of endowments of money and conveyances of land. There follows a long wedding ceremony with no expense spared. The `vitaille was the moste deynteuous' in all Italy and every course was accompanied by `loud minstralcye'; no doubt some kind of medieval heavy rock. May looked very pretty, with so `meek a look...like a may morning', as all medieval romantic heroines were supposed to.

Damian, January's squire, immediately falls in love with her, and, because he is a well-brought up young man, knows exactly what to do in order to play the part of the unrequited lover. He takes to his bed; refuses food; sends his friends away; sighs a lot, and composes poems and songs to his beloved. In the meantime, after seeing all the guests off the premises, January, with his `berd unsofte, his cough, and slakke skin aboute his nekke', proves an unattractive and laborious lover.

Four days later, January notices that Damian is missing from the meals in the hall and urges May to visit him. When she does so, Damian seizes his opportunity and gives her a letter in a leather purse, which she reads secretly in the loo. In the best romantic tradition, May feels `pitee' and replies to the letter, hiding her reply under Damian's pillow; giving his hand a good squeeze by way of encouragement.

January's garden is a walled orchard, the symbolism of which has a long tradition in Biblical and Arabian literature. It flows from the original Garden of Eden through other Old Testament references, as in the story of Susannah and the Elders, via the Harems of the East, to the Garden of Delights of medieval romantic fiction.

The word paradise means an orchard. Its purpose was a hidden enclosure where a dominant male could corral all his females to prevent other males from either sight or access, at the same time providing a pleasant environment of scent, blossom, fruit, and water, to beguile his captives. It occurs in other Chaucerian stories, principally in The Knight's Tale. January did not allow anyone else inside his garden and had the only `cliket' to the door.

Fate takes a hand, because January becomes suddenly blind, and his selfishness is even more apparent at the thought of May marrying someone else after his death, expecting her to live `as widwe in clothes blake'. He became intensely jealous of what she was doing and whom she saw, and kept his hand constantly on her shoulder. However, May was equal to the task of deception and made an impression of the key in wax, (which is an ironic second use of the word in the story) and Damian makes a copy.

One day towards the end of June, January coaxes May into the garden, echoing the Song of Solomon from the Old Testament as he does so. `Rise up, my wife, my love, my lady free...' he says, and we realise, with some surprise, that perhaps he has become genuinely fond of her after all. Damian sneaks into the garden ahead of them and, once inside, January offers May even more of his possessions and `al myn heritage, toun, and tour' if she will be faithful to him.

May, doubtless crossing her fingers behind her back, tells him that she is `a gentil womman and no wenche' and offers to accept a ducking in the river otherwise. She also tells January that men `ben ever untrewe' and at the same moment indicates to Damian that he should climb the pear tree they are standing beneath as she had instructed in an earlier letter.

A digression follows in the form of a dialogue between Pluto, king of the underworld and his enforced bride, Proserpine, condemned to live with him for six months of every year. He feels sorry for January and decides to return his sight if May is unfaithful. Proserpine replies that if he does, then she will make sure that any women in `any gilt y-take' thereafter will always find a good excuse, even if `a man seyn a thing with bothe his yen', and both settle down to await events.

May would appear to be pregnant by this time and as `a woman in my plyt' decided she would like a pear from the tree, albeit an unripe one in late June. She asked January to put his hands around the trunk and make a back for her to climb the tree, and up she went. Balancing no doubt precariously, she and Damian make the most of this pre-arranged opportunity and at that moment Pluto returns January his sight.

January is appalled by what he suddenly sees and May, given the gift of conviction by Proserpine, replies that struggling with a man in a tree was the only method of his regaining his sight. January is doubtful about her definition of struggling, but May tells him he ought to be grateful he can see so well, instead of merely `short-sighted glimsing'. In any case, he must wait for a day or two `til that his sighte y-satled be a whyle'. January is slowly reassured and proprietorially patting her pregnant belly, he walks her home to his palays.

Copyright 1998 David Byram-Wigfield. All Rights reserved.


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